How people get around often becomes a defining characteristic of world-class cities. Think of Tokyo's train stations; Prague's streets; Venice's gondolas. A sign of modern greatness – or at least a bit of hipster cachet – is the bike-friendly city. Look to Amsterdam, Paris, and London. Add New York City to that list.

In the past three years, the Big Apple has doubled its protected bike lanes (now around 400 miles) and, this week, it launched the biggest bike-share program in North America. As of launch, the Citi Bike program has 6,000 bikes at more than 300 solar-powered stations in the New York City boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn, serving 15,000 annual pass holders (it opens to daily and hourly riders in the following weeks). Akin to the most advanced car-sharing programs like Car2Go, the system runs a point-to-point technology. Cyclists who pay $95 for a yearly pass receive a USB-shaped RFID key in the mail. Then, it's simply a matter of inserting the key into the station by the bike, waiting a few seconds for the light to turn green, and taking your two wheels for 45 minutes. Once you get to your destination, you can use the Citi Bike App to find the nearest of the now 300-plus active stations. Push the front wheel into an empty rack and the computer automatically checks you in.

On a recent ride, the system worked flawlessly. We keyed in, the yellow light turned to green, and we were off. The bike itself is a heavy, three-speed cruiser, with built-in front and back lights (powered by the gears, which create some noticeable drag), mud flaps, and a small front basket. It's no performance bike, but it is just right for its intended use: a restaurant-hopping (or, unintended, a bar-hopping) taxi alternative that will cause you to slow down and take in the city as you move through it. You must bring your own helmet and be sure to use Google Maps' bike directions to follow the bike lanes. (Our advice on north/south lanes: Avoid Fifth Avenue, Sixth, and Park Avenues if you can – they're bike-lane-free taxi and bus death traps. Instead, go out of your way to take in the protected, gardened, waterviewing Hudson River Park.) If you go over your 45 minutes, the charge is $2.50 for an extra half hour and $9 for every half hour beyond that (the pricing scheme encourages the use of these bikes as a short-distance transportation alternative to taxis or walking, rather than day-long bike rides). Tourists or occasional bikers can buy a day pass ($10 for unlimited 30-minute sessions) or week pass ($25 for unlimited 45-minute sessions) at the kiosk by the bikes, where they are given a number to punch into the individual bike stand. In the next year, the city plans to expand north of 59th street in Manhattan as well as putting stations in Queens, and further into Brooklyn. [citibikenyc.com]